Donald Wagner, The Daily Star, Beirut, October 10, 2003
During his two mandates, former US President Bill Clinton increasingly took on the role of chief negotiator and mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although his background had a hint of Southern Baptist evangelicalism, Clinton was more inclined toward the secular Labor Party in Israel and found a close affinity with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Meanwhile, the Likud-Christian Zionist alliance, which opposed the Oslo Accords, found itself on the political sidelines.
In May 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel’s prime minister, defeating Shimon Peres. Once again Likud ideology dominated Israeli policy. Netanyahu had long been a favorite of the Christian Zionists, a relationship that developed during his years as Israel’s representative to the UN, and he was a frequent speaker at important Christian Zionist functions, whether the Feast of Tabernacles hosted by the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem or the annual National Prayer Breakfast for Israel held in Washington.
Within a few months of his election, Netanyahu convened the Israel Christian Advocacy Council, bringing 17 American fundamentalist leaders to Israel for an update on the Mideast situation. The tour concluded with a conference and statement that reflected Likud’s political platform. The fundamentalist leaders signed a pledge stating, “America will never, never desert Israel.” Among the other pledges were statements of support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, and for a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. Each declaration was upheld by Biblical citations and a veneer of evangelical Christian language.
The Christian Zionist leaders returned to the United States and launched a national campaign with full-page advertisements in major newspapers under the banner “Christians call for a united Jerusalem.” Of little concern to the Christian Zionists was the fact that their positions were in conflict with official US policy and could undermine the delicate negotiations of the Oslo process. Signed onto by Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Ralph Reed, then director of the conservative Christian Coalition, prominent minister Jerry Falwell and Ed McAteer of the Religious Roundtable, the campaign was one of Likud’s answers to the Clinton-Labor strategy. It was also a direct challenge to the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic campaign led by Churches for Middle East Peace that called for a “shared Jerusalem.”
Likud also turned to the Christian Zionists for help in offsetting the
dramatic decline in contributions to Israel from the American Jewish establishment
during the conflict between the Orthodox and Reform-Conservative branches
of Judaism. When the latter cut back on their contributions to the Jewish
National Fund in the late 1990s, several Christian Zionist-oriented churches
were asked to make up the difference. The International Fellowship of Christians
and Jews, led by a former Anti-Defamation League employee and Orthodox
rabbi, Yechiel Eckstein, claimed to have raised over $5 million, mostly
from fundamentalist Christian sources.
For example, John Hagee, pastor of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, announced in February 1997 that his church was donating over $1 million to Israel. Hagee claimed the funds would be used to help resettle Jews from the Soviet Union in the West Bank and Jerusalem. “We feel like the coming of Soviet Jews to Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy,” Hagee stated. When asked if he realized that support of Likud’s policies and the increase in Jewish settlements was at cross-purposes with US policy, Hagee answered: “I am a Bible scholar and a theologian, and from my perspective the law of God transcends the laws of the United States government and the US State Department.”
The Netanyahu government used American Christian Zionists in another way as it sought to undermine the faltering Oslo negotiations. On Oct. 22, 1997, Israel Radio claimed that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was persecuting Christians. Two days later the Jerusalem Post published an article citing “classified information” made known to the Israeli government in which it was claimed that Palestinian Christians faced relentless and brutal persecution from the “predominantly Muslim PA.” The report alleged that “Christian cemeteries have been destroyed, monasteries have had their telephone lines cut, and there have been break-ins in convents.” It went on to claim that the PA had “taken control of the churches and was pressuring Christian leaders to serve as mouthpieces for Yasser Arafat and opponents of Israel.”
Within a month, US Congressman J. C. Watts, an Oklahoma Republican, reiterated these charges in a Washington Times opinion piece, blaming Arafat for the Christian exodus from the Holy Land and calling for a review and possible freeze on the $307 million in grants pledged to the PA by the United States. The campaign grew, thanks in part to publicity generated by the articles of A.M. Rosenthal and William Safire of the New York Times, and pressure exerted on Congress by Michael Horowitz, a pro-Israel lobbyist. Palestinian Christians were quick to denounce the charges. Mayor Hanna Nasser of Bethlehem stated: “Our churches have complete freedom, and I’ve never heard that they’ve been under pressure.”
Together with the international evangelical leader “Brother Andrew,” president of the Netherlands based Open Doors, I led a May 1998 investigation of the Israeli charges on behalf of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. We interviewed more than 60 Muslim and Christian leaders, people at the grass roots level throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip and officials and leaders from the PA and Israeli government. We found no evidence of PA or Muslim persecution of Palestinian Christians, although there were three isolated cases of Christian-Muslim family disputes over intermarriage. The most telling interview was with Uri Mor, the director of the Department of Christian Communities at the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, which oversees all Christian activities in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Mor said the charges were traceable to David Bar-Ilan, Netanyahu’s chief spokesman, and told our team that Bar-Ilan used shreds of information as his “bread and butter” in the propaganda campaign against the Palestinians.
We later interviewed a staff member of the US Consulate in Jerusalem, which had previously interviewed Mor and looked into the problem. The consulate had received a report on the persecution of Christian Palestinians as a confidential internal document. Upon investigation, it determined that the basis of the report came from four Palestinians who had been converted to Christianity by a Messianic Jewish evangelist who resided in an Israeli settlement. Two had criminal backgrounds and the others were suspected of collaborating with the Israeli secret services. The PA had imprisoned the converts, based on their criminal activities, not their conversions.
Apparently, Bar-Ilan’s office leaked the report to the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem, which then published the stories and launched a campaign against the PA. After our investigation, Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding issued a statement clarifying the matter and citing “disturbing indications that political motivations were behind the publicity about Christian persecution” in the Holy Land. The Christian Zionist campaign against the PA came to a halt but undoubtedly the tactic will be pursued again.
Donald Wagner is professor of religion and Middle Eastern studies at North Park University in Chicago and executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He wrote this text, the fourth in a series of five, for THE DAILY STAR